The Colombian government is calling on the help of the private sector to lift the galleon ‘San José’ from the seabed as quickly as possible. That ship has a gold treasure that could be worth as much as $20 billion. “This is one of the government’s priorities,” said Culture Minister Juan David Correa. “The president has told us to speed up.”
An agreement with a private company is a possibility, for example in the form of a public-private partnership. President Gustavo Petro of Colombia wants to complete the recovery of the wreck before his term ends in 2026. But whether that will succeed is far from certain, he admits.
The Spanish galleon was sunk by the British in 1708. The holds were packed with treasure that the Spanish had captured in Latin America in the previous six years. This involved silver and gold from Peruvian mines, chests full of Colombian emeralds, and millions of coins. At least, that is what historian Carla Rahn Phillips (University of Minnesota) has established in her book The treasure of the San José. She delved into the archives to reconstruct the ship’s last voyage. Only eleven of the six hundred people on board survived the galleon’s sinking.
No one knows how much the ship’s cargo is worth. But various lawsuits over the ship over the years have cited amounts ranging from $4 billion to $20 billion. The estimates are based on data from the San José’s twin ship, the San Joaquin. That ship escaped the British attack and was able to continue its journey to Spain unscathed. The composition of the cargo is excellently documented.
Efforts have been underway to recover the treasure for over forty years. In 1981, an American company, Glocca Morra, announced that it had found the San José. The company gave up the location on the condition that it would be entitled to half of the treasure. The Colombian Supreme Court confirmed in 2007 that the arrangement was lawful.
But in 2015, then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos stated that the Colombian Navy had found the ship in a different location. The Navy had collaborated with the company Marine Archeology Consultants (MAC) for the search. The exact location remains a state secret. However, photos were distributed of bronze cannons with the logo of a dolphin. That would prove that it is the San José. Sea Search Armada, as Glocca Morra is now known, believes the ship’s remains are scattered across the seabed. Both the 2015 and 1981 expeditions may have found parts of the San José.
Sea Search Armada has initiated arbitration proceedings in London. This is possible according to the American-Colombian Trade Promotion Treaty. The company is asking for $10 billion, the equivalent of what half the treasure would be worth according to its own calculations. Correa says Colombia will respect the outcome of the proceedings, but the government believes the case is without merit. “We inspected the site in question, but we did not find any shipwreck there,” he said.
The government plans to establish an archaeological laboratory where the ship and its cargo can be cleaned, studied and inventoried. Then everything would be exhibited in a museum.